Number One (Unwanted) Fan: Indian Enthusiasts Who Do Indians No Favors

Sometimes good intentions can backfire badly. Other times, we assume our intentions are better than they actually are. Billionaire Ted, a character in Sherman Alexie’s book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a man stuck in one of these categories. Ted feels a strong connection to Indians because he loves their art and their spirits. This leads him to buy a powwow dress from a man, even though he knew the man was a liar. This bothered Ted’s conscience, so he decided to return it to its rightful owner. An expert traces the dress to the protagonist’s grandmother, Grandmother Spirit. Ted arrives at the reservation just in time for her funeral. After a grand, pathos-laden speech, he gives the dress to Grandmother Spirit’s daughter, who immediately confirms the dress was never her mother’s. In fact, nobody present can identify the dress’s origin. Ted hesitates, then takes the dress and leaves in embarrassment. [1]

 

This is the only mention Ted ever receives in the book. The reader does not know anything about Ted beyond what the protagonist, Arnold, describes. Sherman Alexie uses Arnold to express his own beliefs, and he succinctly informs the reader how he—and many other Indians—see whites who collect Indian art: “Oh, God, he was a collector. Those guys made Indians feel like insects pinned to a display board.” [2] Ted is just a caricature with no relevance to the story, but he was placed there to make a point.

 

Many Americans assume that fans of Indian art and culture are some of the best allies Indians have. Because Indians constitute a very small and concentrated part of our population, most of us rarely if ever meet someone who is an Indian, let alone interact with them for an extended period. Most of the information we have about Indians come from impersonal sources like media depictions and museums, rather than personal interactions. In these circumstances, collectors of Indian art seem to be a good substitute. These are the people who will passionately speak up for Indians at every opportunity they have, and we assume that they are informed on every issue related to Indians.

 

Alexie clearly does not believe that a passion for Indian art or culture automatically causes someone to be knowledgeable about either, or to have Indian peoples’ best interests at heart. In fact, wealthy collectors of Indian art often contribute to some of the problems that Indians currently face. For one, non-Indians who love Indian culture often generalize the cultures they feel so passionate about. They talk about all Indians as if they are fundamentally the same, with their primary differences being in the aesthetics of their material culture. This risks the perpetuation of stereotypes like the Noble Savage or the Vanishing Indian. Another problem is that art becomes a major economic force in Indian communities because wealthy collectors demand so much of it, but they only demand art from some Indian communities. This is a problem for Iroquois artists. Their work is not valued by wealthy collectors the way Navajo art is, so the market price of Iroquois art is too low for them to make a living from it. In both of these cases, the core problem is that non-Indians are using Indians for what they want, putting their interests ahead of the Indians’ own.

 

We can counteract this by placing Indian interests ahead of our own, especially when we deal with Indians as a subject. This goes for museums, collectors of Indian art, and the population in general. Instead of treating Indians like a curiosity, we can dignify them by listening to their opinions, and showing a regard for their needs. This will sometimes mean dealing with contradictory opinions about what is best for Indians, both inside and outside the Indian population. It will also sometimes require collectors and museums to forsake what they want if it’s not what’s best for an Indian community, or for Indians as a whole. It will almost certainly create controversy and disagreement about what’s best. But it is the way to promote justice.

 

[1] Alexie, Sherman, TheAbsolutelyTrueDiaryofaPartTimeIndian, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2007), 161-167.

[2] Alexie, 163.

"Bent-Corner Box 2," anonymous, 2010, Wikimedia Commons
“Bent-Corner Box 2,” anonymous, 2010, Wikimedia Commons

15 thoughts on “Number One (Unwanted) Fan: Indian Enthusiasts Who Do Indians No Favors

  1. Rick, thank you for this thoughtful post. You brought up a really good point that sometimes what is best for Native Americans will be in contrast to what collectors and museums will want. It is hard to remember that as you said, even the best of intentions can backfire. It is critical to think about the many ways our intentions can be interpreted and be open to hearing others’ opinions of the situation as well.

  2. I used to imagine while walking through the “Ancient Art” section of the Walters Art Museum that the curator was presenting to the actual Ancient Egyptians or Ancient Romans. It’s actually kind of funny when you think about it, especially when the “ceremonial” uses so celebrated in the labels may not be as important as described. This is not to say that objects do not play essential roles in Native American ceremony, but the connections the exhibit made were at times a little far fetched, with a little bit of conjecture. What would happen if the Ancient Egyptians showed up? Maybe we can see the same as Ted made his presentation in Alexie’s story. Surely there would be some contradictory opinions.

  3. Your post brings up some very important, and thought-provoking, points, Rick. The demand of wealthy collectors is certainly problematic. Because they drive the market, it seems like they easily put Native American art in a box. Their opinions may influence Native American artists to produce pieces that are tailored to what might sell. This not only does a disservice to individual artists, who are then kept from making free expressions, but perpetuate, as you note, stereotypes about Native Americans and their art.

    1. What are the possible reasons certain tribal art, like Rick described, the Navajo, would be valued over others, such as the Iroquois? The whole thing is a difficult dilemma.

      1. It could be that Navajo art is more iconic compared to the art from other nations. A lot of imagery used in Navajo art is based off of powerful ceremonies like traditional sand paintings and depictions of kachinas. Sand paintings which were created by healers in ceremonies to spiritually as well as physically heal a person. People love the images used in sand painting, but the ceremony only created the images to be temporary. Once the ceremony (which took days) was completed the sand crafted images were wiped away to free the spirits that were called. Even Navajo people loved the iconography and they recreated the art in other forms such as tapestries and paintings. The finished image was still considered powerful, so to avoid trapping a spirit they intentionally made a mistake on each artwork to give a spirit a means of escape. People love the story around Native Indian artworks, especially the sand paintings. The Navajo are also a pueblo culture, and pueblo art is very iconic, especially when we start talking about Kachinas, their sky spirits.

      2. I think one possible reason could be interest and research- maybe there has been more research done on Navajo culture and art which has sparked more interest in it. Also, because it is the largest federally recognized tribe of the United States of America, more people in that tribe can talk about their story, history, personal experiences, there are more artists and writers, etc. than other tribes such as the Iroquois.

      3. To piggyback on your question, Kahla, it’s interesting to me that the phenomenon Alexie and Rick describe sort of breaks away from the idea of connoisseurship that we hear discussed so frequently. It’s not really collection of art for the sake of interpretation (even from the art historian perspective). You could argue that it’s not about enjoyment of art or used as a lens through which we can view Native American cultures. It’s collection for the sole reason that it’s Native American. It’s tribal. It was made by “the other.” These seem to be the reasons many, not necessarily all, collectors focus on Native American art.

        Rick brings up an interesting point. Listening to the needs of the tribes from which the pieces of art come is a good start to limiting the ethnocentricity of art collection, but what else can we do?

      4. Stephenie, it’s interesting how you mention the possibility that Navajo art is more iconic. I think you’re onto something with that. Just look at the material culture of certain Plains Indians tribes (I’m thinking specifically of a headdress, such as one found on display in the Thaw Gallery, http://collections.fenimoreartmuseum.org/items/show/1315). Although this headwear is not a universal part of Native American material culture, I believe that it appears on many visual representations of Native Americans in popular culture. Are there other pieces of Native American material culture that appear in popular culture as a “universal” among Native Americans?

      5. I think it’s important to remember the frontier story popularized in Western films. I think the reason Navajo art is more “iconic” is in part due to its emphasis in these films and in popular culture. The Iroquois haven’t been romanticized in the public eye to the extent that the Western tribes have. Thus, Navajo art is recognizable and in some ways representative of Native American art in a way that Iroquois art is not.

      6. I think you both bring up great points, Stephenie and Eric, in relation to the popularity of Navajo art. In response to your question, Eric, my mind immediately strayed to teepees and adobe houses. Just think of the Cherry Valley Trading Post! But I think it’s interesting that if this idea is true, that Navajo art is more highly valued because it is more “representative” or iconic of white ideas of Native American culture, it contradicts how we view other forms of art. Of course I’m no art scholar but I think we often value works of art that are more unique and challenge ideas of the norm. But it seems here, with Native American art, we value what is a perceived representation of a culture.

    2. Also important I think is where Native American art is place within a gallery space. We have talked about space and place a lot in class and I think it deserves mention here. By putting Native American art at the begging of a timeline and not weaving it throughout the timeline museums can create the impression that Native American cultures are gone and in the past. This is not true at all.

  4. I think that museums have the potential and responsibility to address this concern. Collectors of Native American art may continue to influence what style of art is most profitable, but museums can (and some have and continue to) showcase both traditional and contemporary art from various tribes to increase understanding of the uniqueness of each tribe and address the perception that Native American art is locked in the past. Increasing appreciation for a wide range of Native American arts would (ideally) help to redefine the classic perception of desirable Native American art and increase visitor understanding of contemporary Native American culture and issues. However, it might be a long time before the misconceptions held by “Indian enthusiasts” can be changed.

    1. I like that you mentioned contemporary Native American art, Keith. Tying in with what others have said, collectors help shape what is thought of as beautiful and desirable. Their penchant for Navajo art, for instance, helps perpetuate a primitive stereotype about Native Americans. However, they still exist and not inside of a bubble. I think it is the museum’s job to show what every aspect, even the ones that do not necessarily catch the eyes of collectors. Then hopefully through this thoughtful display, the stereotypes will be challenged and opinions will shift to appreciate to full range of Native American art.

    2. When we went to NYC, as a class, a few of us visited the American Indian Museum in NYC. The museum did a phenomenal job in displaying traditional and contemporary art from various Native Groups and when they didn’t had an unknown artist, the museum credited them as unknown (enter tribal group) artist, which gave credit to the particular native group.

  5. Unfortunately, our field is in the objectification market, something that has mildly disturbed me for some time. We use objects to objectify people’s suffering. People at Greenfield Village visit the Hermitage Slave Quarters there, say thank God that’s in the past, and then move onto Robert Frost’s home. This place of suffering, love, violence, resistance, saddness, and hope sits next to a food stand that sells soul food.

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